A French Festival Focuses (Timidly) on English

Portuguese director Tiago Rodriguez has made a symbolic move as soon as he takes over as director at France’s biggest theatrical event, the Avignon Festival. Under his direction, each year a different language will be given a special focus, and from this summer onwards it will be performed in English. .

Some people flinched that English was already too culturally dominant for many in France. After all, they didn’t have to worry. Of the dozens of works in the official lineup for this year’s festival, which runs until July 25, only six are performed primarily in English.

As a result, Avignon, which has welcomed shows from a wide range of cultures over the years, has not seen much change this year. If anything, Rodriguez’s Anglo-Saxon choice seems a little timid. A focus on language rather than country could have opened the door to English-speaking theater from underrepresented regions. Instead, there are five of his films by British directors, two of which are his, Tim Etchells and Alexander Zeldin, who are already established directors in France.

Some new productions are still to come, including one from London’s Royal Court Theatre, a little-known production in the English Channel. But so far the most interesting find is the only American entry from the Elevator Repair Service, “Baldwin and Buckley of Cambridge”. This verbatim recreation of his 1965 debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr. on race issues in America is lean and meticulously crafted. . From tables across the stage, Greig Sargent (Baldwin) and Ben Williams (Buckley) are sparring in a solemn atmosphere.

The fact that elevator repair services are widely described as “experimental” in their home country may amuse some French festival-goers. “Baldwin and Buckley of Cambridge” are pretty solid by local standards. Only the brief final scene, in which Sargent and April Mathis, as playwrights Lorraine Hansbury, break character and touch on racial issues in the making of their previous Elevator Repair Service films, is truly poignant.

Another North American production in Avignon is Marguerite: Fire, performed in French by Quebec-based Indigenous writer and director Emily Monet. It also touches on the history of racism through a lesser-known historical figure, Marguerite Duplessis. In 1740, Duplessis claimed that she was born a free woman, and she was one of the first slaves to be tried before a Canadian court.

Monet, along with three other performers, pays tribute to Duplessis in a compelling piece of evocative choral and dance numbers, but it is too linear and the text, though well-intentioned, monotonous. It feels like Like ‘Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge’, ‘Marguerite the Fire’ is unwittingly incorporated into France’s national sport, lamenting North American racism while acknowledging it up close. I have a hard time doing it.

Meanwhile, the French portion of the line-up also featured directors who focused on the Anglo-Saxons by adapting the works of English-speaking authors. New star Pauline Bale, appointed conductor of the Montreuil Theater last year, boldly challenged Virginia Woolf. Unfortunately, the resulting “Writing Life” is strangely formless.

The cast jerks back and forth between spirited contemporary digressions and snippets of Woolf’s work. At one minute, they refer to the imminent threat of a pandemic-style lockdown and engage in a somewhat forced interaction with a three-row audience. Next, they tackle Wolfe’s complex style, which seems pretentious in contrast.

“Writing Life” had English subtitles, at least for non-French speakers, a welcome development for the Avignon festival. Under previous director Olivier Pye, some productions already came with English translations, but director Rodriguez made it the default to appeal to a wider international audience.

There were some exceptions, notably Philippe Quesne’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, which was only accessible to French speakers. It’s a shame, because the work was to mark the reopening of Avignon’s legendary venue, the Bourbon Quarry, a majestic natural spot on the outskirts of the city. Last used was his 2016, especially because of his eye-to-eye running costs.Considering only fire safety measures It ended up costing 600,000 This year it’s in euros, or $670,000.

The Garden of Earthly Delights was a loving reintroduction to Bourbon. In the film, members of an eccentric hippie-adjacent community are transported by bus to a quarry. They carefully lay a giant egg in the middle of a vast space and perform amusingly absurd rituals around it. There are also reproductions of poses from Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings. Some deliver strange poems and monologues. Even if we could speak the language, it didn’t quite make sense, but we were very comfortable in the dry, otherworldly background of Bourbon.

However, for English-speaking visitors, one of Avignon’s main parts remains difficult to access. It’s a fringe known as a ‘le off’. With around 1,500 shows offered in venues large and small around the city, much smaller than the official line-up, very few of them offer English versions or subtitles.

But if you look closely, you’ll find several opportunities to mingle with French people at Le Houf. A small number of venues offer subtitles on certain days. For example, “Don Cathedral”Medusais a clever feminist reinterpretation of the mythical figure Medusa by the Belgian firm La Gunn.

Some performers find other ways to bridge the gap with English speakers. On Mondays during the festival, French writer and performer Maimouna Koulibaly, now living in Berlin, will present a one-woman show.Maimouna – HPSPerformed in English at Porte Saint-Michel Theater. This is an open-ended exploration of her relationship with her body, including her traumatic circumcision as a child and her adult sex life. Going back and forth between the two experiences causes a bit of whiplash, but Koulibaly brings a vibrant energy to the stage.

Also, some French programs require very little translation. Justin Heinemann and Rachel Arditi’s “PunkessPerformed at the La Scala in Provence, this song dives into the story of the Slits, the first major all-female punk band, and is so uplifting that at recent performances, quite a few people stood up before the final song. It was so much.

Charlotte Avias, in particular, delivers a memorable pixie-punk performance as The Slits’ lead vocalist Ari Up, while powerful singer Kim Verschulen casts a shadowy nuance in the role of Tessa Pollitt. is heading. A setlist that cycled through The Beatles, The Clash and The Velvet Underground could have used more Slits songs, but “Punk.es” is the French artist’s long-running inspiration for Anglo-Saxon artists. It reminds me of what I got.

There is a way forward before language differences become a barrier to theater. Yet the Avignon Festival is playing its part more and more.

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